At 9.15 a.m. on 23 October 1915, a German torpedo slammed into the transport ship Marquette as she entered the Gulf of Salonika in the Aegean Sea. The ship sank within ten minutes, leaving hundreds of survivors struggling in the water. By the time rescue craft arrived several hours later, 167 people had drowned, including 32 New Zealanders (ten women and 22 men).
Image of the hospital ship Marquette with list of members of the New Zealand Medical Corps, and New Zealand nurses lost in the sinking on 23 October 1915. Price, William Archer, 1866-1948 :Collection of post card negatives. Ref: 1/2-000610-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22606846
Most of the New Zealand victims were nurses and medical orderlies of the 1st New Zealand Stationary Hospital. They were en route from Egypt to the northern Greek port of Salonika (Thessaloniki) as New Zealand’s contribution to the Allied campaign in the Balkans.
Chief Historian at the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, Neill Atkinson, says the incident caused great public outrage in New Zealand – it remains the deadliest day in the history of this country’s military nursing. But the loss of life could have been prevented had the medical staff been transferred by hospital ship – hospital ships were painted white and were normally exempt from attack.
“A hospital ship had left the same port on the same day as the Marquette, completely empty. By putting the medical staff in an unmarked transport in a convoy carrying troops and ammunition, the authorities unnecessarily risked their lives,” says Atkinson. “The New Zealand government acknowledged as much in November 1915 when the Governor, Lord Liverpool, told the War Office that his ministers wanted future transfers of medical units to be done by hospital ships where possible.”
The anniversary of the Marquette’s sinking 98 years ago is a reminder that First World War centenary commemorations officially start next year in August 2014, 100 years since the war began.
On Armistice Day this year, 11 November, a landmark publication, New Zealand and the First World War, will be launched as part of the multi-agency First World War Centenary History Programme, which will fully explore the war and New Zealand’s involvement in it.